NBC Sports

PHT’s 2018-19 Central Division Preview

2 Comments

(The 2018-19 NHL season is almost here. This week Pro Hockey Talk will be previewing all four divisions looking at strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

Atlantic Division Preview
Metropolitan Division Preview
Pacific Division Preview

It’s been widely regarded as the toughest (and arguably the most talented) division in the NHL, and the Central Division certainly lived up to that moniker last season, sporting the top two teams league-wide in the Nashville Predators and the Winnipeg Jets, finishing with 117 and 114 points, respectively. The division doesn’t look like it will take a step back this season, either.

It’s one of the most interesting arms races in the NHL and there are no signs of that slowing down.

What will the division look like this year? Let’s take a look:

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: 

Better or Worse: This one depends on how the Corey Crawford situation plays out. It appears he’s getting close to returning, but it takes one puck or one bump in the crease to send Chicago’s season into a spiral again. Cam Ward is a serviceable backup, if not still a fringe starter in the NHL, so Chicago has that going for them at the moment.

The ‘Hawks are only getting older. See: Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, etc. Jonathan Toews’ production is slipping. Patrick Kane is likely still going to put in work, but I’m not certain it will be enough.

Strengths: Goaltending, if Crawford plays. His numbers last season were otherworldly until injuries derailed his bid for the Vezina. Ward, as mentioned above, should be a solid backup that could allow Crawford to rest a little more throughout the season but Crawford needs to play for the Blackhawks to have a shot.

Weaknesses: Defense. Keith and Seabrook at the team’s top defensive pairing and aren’t getting younger and are playing more minutes than what would be considered optimal. Both are overworked and it showed last year. Adding Brandon Manning over the summer offers some depth on the back end, but it’s simply not what it used to be in Chicago.

2017-18 Highlight: One name: Scott Foster.

MVP Candidate: Patrick Kane. He’s still one of the best playing the game currently, a point-per-game player that can put the Blackhawks on his back on any given night.

Playoffs or Lottery: Lottery. The Central Division is simply too good to allow mediocre teams into the playoffs.

COLORADO AVALANCHE: 

Better or Worse: Was it a fluke? A team that was dismal a year prior went on to make the playoffs with their last possible chance on the final day of the regular season and then looked pretty darn good against the Nashville Predators at times in the first round.

They added depth in Matt Calvert and Ian Cole and made things interesting in the crease after acquiring Philipp Grubauer via trade. Can they build off last season, or will they experience the bumps young teams do as they grow together? There’s a lot of questions that need to be answered.

Strengths: Special teams were a tremendous asset to the Avalanche last season. They finished eighth on the power play at 21.9 percent and fourth on the penalty kill at 83.3 percent. Those are some solid numbers from a young team like the Avs.

Weaknesses: The expectation that Nathan MacKinnon (and his line) needs to do it all. We saw it last year, and the Avalanche made the playoffs (barely) because of it. But that can’t be the expectation going forward. They’re still a team rebuilding, so the expectation is that will be cured with time.

2017-18 Highlight: Clinching a playoff berth in Game 82. (Don’t miss Landeskog getting mauled by his teammates after the clinching empty-netter.)

MVP Candidate: Nathan MacKinnon. Some say he got robbed of the Hart last year. He put the team on his back on the way to a playoff spot.

Playoffs or Lottery: Unfortunately, a couple teams have gotten better around them and that’s pushed the Avalanche out of the playoff spot and into the lottery.

DALLAS STARS:

Better or Worse: It has to get better, right? A new coaching style courtesy of Jim Montgomery might just do wonders for this team. It’s not like the talent isn’t there. They have one of the best top lines in all of hockey. Simply, if the Stars can score more, they have the rest of the tools to be a playoff team. A top 10 defense and solid goaltending are in place. Score. More. Goals.

Strengths: Defense. This seems to be a theme in this division. Dallas, despite their inability to score outside of their top line, was consistent on the backend, allowing the sixth fewest goals against in the league. Part of that is John Klingberg and Co. The other part is Ben Bishop. They had a decent penalty kill and allowed the fourth fewest number of shots per game.

Weaknesses: The Stars simply need more goals. It was their burden last season. They simply couldn’t find the back of the next enough to win hockey games. The teams’ top power-play unit needs to be better than their 19th ranking last season.

2017-18 Highlight: Here’s Jordie Benn hitting brother Jamie while their parents were in the stands to watch their sons play. Classic.

MVP Candidate: Tyler Seguin. No contract worries to think about. Just a sheet of ice and a swath of opportunities for goals.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. I simply don’t believe the Stars were as bad as their record showed last season. The switch of Hitchcock to Montgomery is a big one. And, to harp on the goals again, the Stars are a few more of those away from being a playoff team given their defense and goaltending.

MINNESOTA WILD:

Better or Worse: Better because Ryan Suter will be healthy. Better because they will start the season with Zach Parise.

Suter was ruled out for the rest of the season on March 31 and could only watch as the Winnipeg Jets decimated the Wild in the playoffs. Suter’s return is big for the team that added some depth in the offseason. The Wild dealt with a litany of injuries last season to top players such as Parise (who missed many games due to offseason back surgery), Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle. While Eric Staal may not score 42 goals again, a healthy Wild team is a dangerous Wild team.

Strengths: Devan Dubnyk has been rock solid in goal, and couple that with the Wild’s stingy defense, and there’s no reason to think he won’t have another great year again. The Wild are a good defensive team that can also score a pile of goals.

Weaknesses: The Wild are their own worst enemy. Minnesota is a good team that just can’t figure it out in the postseason. They finished 11th in goals for last season but only scored nine in five playoff games against the Jets. You can only shoot yourself in the foot so many times before it falls off. Calling on Bruce Boudreau to figure that out — it’s his job.

2017-18 Highlight: Eric Staal was sensational last season. Here’s a five-point night that included a hat trick for good measure.

MVP Candidate: Matt Dumba. A workhorse defenseman who anchors the power play and can score. He achieved career highs in goals with 14 and points with 34 last season and could take another step toward that elite plateau this year.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. They showed even without star players for various lengths last season, they had the depth to find a way in the back door. The Wild are a great team that shouldn’t have an issue making the playoffs.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS:

Better or Worse: They added a veteran presence on the backend in Dan Hamuis and have Eeli Tolvanen to look forward to upfront. They’re basically the same team that was in the Cup Final two years ago and have all that experience to lean on once again this season. They’re better through experience and a couple of added pieces that could finally fit this puzzle together.

Strengths: There’s still no better defensive core in hockey, right? Josi. Subban. Ellis. Ekholm – their top four is the envy of the NHL. They added third-pairing depth in veteran defenseman Dan Hamhuis, too. It heads into the regular season as the best back end in hockey (with San Jose hot on their heels).

Weaknesses: The Predators are one of those teams with few flaws. Adept at scoring, solid at defense and proficient at goaltending. Where’s the weakness? It could come from Pekka Rinne. I know, the Vezina winner from this past season? He’s set to turn 36 and struggled in the playoffs when the Predators needed him the most. Juuse Saros should help reduce the workload. That’s good, because if the Predators are going to win in their current window, they need Rinne at his very best at the most important time of the year.

2017-18 Highlight: The Knob Save (Josh Morrissey caught some mean whiplash on the play).

Bonus round: Viktor Arvidsson’s pre-game marriage proposal win.

MVP Candidate: Filip Forsberg. Became a point-per-game player last season even after missing time due to injury, and set a career high in assists.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs, a no-brainer. They’re one of two legitimate Stanley Cup contenders in the Central Divison.

ST. LOUIS BLUES:

Better or Worse: The Blues were in upgrade mode all summer, adding the likes of Ryan O'Reilly, Tyler Bozak and Patrick Maroon, while welcoming back David Perron after his year in Vegas.

The Blues were on the bubble last season, and may have made the playoffs if they sort of give up around the trade deadline and deal Paul Stastny away. The Blues added scoring in the offseason, which will help their bottom-third showing in goals-for, and should help equate to more wins.

Strengths: Undeniably, it’s St. Louis’ defense. On a team with a starting goaltender that had a .906 save percentage, the Blue still gave the sixth-fewest number of goals last season. That’s no small feat, given the struggles Allen achieved last season.

Weaknesses: It has to be in goal. Jake Allen is the ultimate Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde goaltender. There are days where he appears elite and days where he belongs in the American Hockey League. If Allen can be steady, the Blues are going to be a playoff team. If not, welcome to the lottery.

2017-18 Highlight: Brayden Schenn‘s remarkable season.

MVP Candidate: Vladimir Tarasenko. It’s time for him to hit 40 goals again.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. Despite the question of Allen, the Blues just look like a solid team in front of him, one that can potentially make up for any shortcomings their goaltending may have.

WINNIPEG JETS:

Better or Worse:  Better by virtue of the team getting one year old and coming into this season armed with the knowledge of what it takes to get into the Stanley Cup Playoffs and then what it takes to make a deep run, as the Jets did last season.

And it should be noted that their Western Conference Final elimination should serve in the growth department. Learning to lose and learning from losing can be just as important. They lost Paul Stastny, but were a good team prior to Stasny’s arrival at the trade deadline last season.

Strengths: Winnipeg’s offense was one of the best in the NHL last season and there’s no reason that should change, barring catastrophic injuries to the likes of Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele. Laine could easily top 50 this season, and Wheeler and Scheifele are point-per-game players.

Winnipeg’s power play is lethal and they found secondary scoring in abundance last season. Their projected fourth line (or third, depending on how you look at it) was one of the top 10 lines in the league in terms of puck possession, goals-for percentage and expected goals-for percentage.

Weaknesses: The Jets have few faults, which is what you’d expect from a team that won 52 games last season. That said, questions marks on defense have dominated training camp. The team is trying Tyler Myers out on the left side with Dustin Byfuglien and early impressions aren’t favorable. The loss of Toby Enstrom, who the Jets couldn’t afford to re-sign, has created a hole that needs filling.

2017-18 Highlight: Winning Game 7 in emphatic fashion in the second round against the Nashville Predators to book a trip to the Western Conference Final.

MVP Candidate: Mark Scheifele. A 16-game absence robbed him from a solid run at the Hart last season. Wheeler will be in the mix, too, but Scheifele seems poised for a season that could creep close to the century mark in terms of points.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs, and perhaps an improvement on their trip to the Western Final last year. They’re a Stanley Cup contender.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Ducks give discouraging update on Eaves, Kesler

Getty
Leave a comment

Back in 2016-17 Anaheim Ducks forward Ryan Kesler was wrapping up the first year of a six-year, $41.2 million contract extension and still looking like one of the league’s best shutdown centers.

He finished with 22 goals and 58 points for a Ducks team that reached the Western Conference Final, and was also the runner-up for the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward.

The two years that have followed, including the 2018-19 season, have not been kind to him.

After appearing in only 44 games a season ago due to injury, the 34-year-old Kesler has been limited to just 60 games this season and has missed each of the past seven due to a hip injury. In the two years he has combined for just 13 goals and 22 points, and it sounds like the Ducks do not expect to see him on the ice again this season, while there should be some serious doubt as to what his future might hold.

“We’re going to meet with the doctors tonight, [Kesler] and I,” general manager and interim head coach Bob Murray said on Friday, via the Ducks’ website. “[Kesler] has to get everything in his life in order as to what he has to do in order to play. It’s not exactly good for his body, the things he puts himself through. We need to take full inventory of where he is in his life and go forward from there. The agent and I have talked a bunch.”

Kesler still has three years remaining on his contract after this one at a salary cap hit of $6.875 million per season. Between him, Ryan Getzlaf, and Corey Perry the Ducks have more than $23 million per season tied up in three players all age 33 or older over the next two full seasons (plus a third season for Kesler).

With the Ducks badly struggling on the ice this season with one of the league’s worst records it does not leave them in an ideal situation. 

Kesler’s status is not the only troubling one that Murray addressed on Friday.

He also mentioned that forward Patrick Eaves is dealing with a lot of the same issues that he dealt with a year ago when a post-viral syndrome limited him to just two games.

He has only appeared in seven NHL games this season.

“He’s had a setback,” said Murray. “Texted with him yesterday. There is no new diagnosis or anything. This is a very troubling situation, and everybody is doing the best they can with it. There is no diagnosis, and he’s just struggling again with everything. Like [Kesler], we hope he gets better so he can have a normal life. I don’t want to speak for him, but he’s just struggling. It’s more like what he had last year. He’s experiencing some of the same issues as last year. Let’s just leave it at that.”

Eaves joined the Ducks in the middle of the 2016-17 NHL season and has scored 132 goals in 633 career games with the Ducks, Dallas Stars, Nashville Predators, Carolina Hurricanes, Detroit Red Wings, and Ottawa Senators.

Related: After year away, Eaves had a blast in return to NHL

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Truck driver involved in Humboldt Broncos bus crash sentenced to eight years

AP Images
1 Comment

MELFORT, Saskatchewan — The driver whose transport truck crashed into a hockey team bus in Canada, killing 16 people, has been sentenced to eight years in prison.

Thirteen others were injured when Jaskirat Singh Sidhu’s semitrailer loaded with peat moss collided with the Humboldt Broncos’ bus in rural Saskatchewan. Sidhu had pleaded guilty earlier this year to 29 counts of dangerous driving

The Broncos were on their way to a playoff game in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.

Judge Inez Cardinal said Friday that Sidhu’s remorse and guilty plea were mitigating factors, but added she had to consider the number of people who died or were severely injured and face lifelong challenges.

Sidhu’s truck ran through a stop sign and into the path of the junior hockey team’s bus at an intersection last April.

Cardinal said the collision was avoidable.

“Mr. Sidhu had ample time to react … had he been paying attention,” she said. “Somehow we must stop this carnage on our highways.”

The prosecution wanted the 30-year-old Sidhu to be sent to prison for 10 years, while his lawyers said other cases suggested a range of 1 1/2 to 4 1/2 years.

Cardinal began her decision by reading aloud each victim’s name. She said the nearly 100 victim impact statements from families were staggering.

The judge said the hockey players who died were gifted athletes, while others on the bus were dreaming about families or had already started them.

“Families have been torn apart because of the loss,” Cardinal said. “They are prone to depression, anxiety or outbursts.”

She also spoke of the survivors, who she suggested “are putting on a brave face in an attempt to be strong.”

Sidhu’s lawyers had said he was remorseful and is likely to face deportation to his home country of India after he serves time.

At a sentencing hearing in January, it was made known that Sidhu was going between 86 and 96 kph (53 and 60 mph) when he passed four signs warning him about the upcoming intersection and approached an oversized stop sign with a flashing light.

Prosecutor Thomas Healey said Sidhu should have seen the busy highway in front of him or a car that was stopped across the road and waiting for the Broncos’ bus to pass.

Healey described the semitrailer as a rocket that barreled into the intersection, which gave the bus driver no time to avoid the crash.

Defense lawyer Mark Brayford said Sidhu was hired by a small Calgary trucking company three weeks earlier. He had spent two weeks with another truck driver before heading out on his own for the first time.

Brayford suggested Sidhu was distracted by a flapping tarp on the back of his load of peat moss.

Oilers’ Rieder responds to CEO criticism: ‘It’s disappointing’

Getty
5 Comments

Edmonton Oilers forward Tobias Rieder had the same reaction everyone should have had when he first read the comments from team CEO Bob Nicholson on Thursday, essentially blaming him for the Oilers’ struggles this season and missing the playoffs for what will be the second year in a row (and 12th time in the past 13 years).

“You look at it and kind of can’t believe it,” said Rieder on Friday, just less than 24 hours he was thrown under the bus by the team’s CEO.

Speaking at an event with season ticket holders, Nicholson did not hold back in his criticism of Rieder, saying that he went to Edmonton as a free agent hoping to play with one of the team’s two superstars (Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl), score 15 or 16 goals, and turn that performance into a larger contract.

Nicholson then criticized Rieder, who has not scored a goal in 60 games this season, for missing “so many breakaways” and then capping it all off with the remark that if Rieder had scored 10 or 12 goals this season the team might be in the playoffs.

“I feel like it’s disappointing, and I’m offended by it,” said Rieder, via AM 630 in Edmonton. “I’m the first one to admit I’m not having a good year. It has not been an easy season for me, it’s been hard. But I’m still going out there and giving 100 percent every time I am on the ice, every game, trying to help the team win. It was tough to read for somebody to get singled out like that and kind of thrown under the bus. It is what it is now. I’m not proud of the season I’m having. Like I said, I’m the first one to admit I’m not playing to my capabilities. I think it went a little too far, and I think Bob knows that too.”

[Related: Oilers’ CEO apologizes for comments about Tobias Rieder]

Even after their win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday, the Oilers are still five points out of a playoff spot in what has been a historically weak playoff race in the Western Conference and still have five teams ahead of them for the second Wild Card spot. Their goal differential of minus-35 is 24th in the NHL and they are the 20th in the league in goals per game despite having two of the top-five scorers in the NHL (McDavid and Draisaitl), both of whom are likely to top 100 points this season.

An additional 10 or 12 goals from Rieder, or anyone else for that matter, would still give them a minus-23 goal differential (which would still only be 23rd in the league) and only improve them to 18th in the league in goals per game. Unless those “10 or 12 goals” all happened at the exact right time and only occurred in one-goal losses, it is an outrageous statement to make, and perhaps the most outrageous any team executive has made this season (not an easy accomplishment).

When asked what bothered him the most about the criticism, Rieder said it was a combination of the timing and the way it came across.

“Thought the timing was a bit weird,” Rieder said. “We are still in the race for the playoffs. Still going to go out there and play my heart out, and play for the guys and my friends in the locker room and do my best to help the team win.

“We are talking all year going through adversity, and the guys in the room we have to stick together. I just don’t think it’s right to single somebody out in a team sport. I get where he’s coming from, like I said, I’m not having my best year, and I just don’t think it’s the right place to single somebody out and throw them under the bus.”

Rieder said he first got word of the comments when Nicholson phoned him to apologize. He was not fully aware of what was happening as he had been taking his pre-game nap in preparation for Thursday’s game, and then his phone began blowing up.

While Rieder was clearly not happy with the criticism and being singled out, he said he still accepted Nicholson’s apology.

“Yeah I did,” said Rieder. “I think that’s the grown up thing to do, you don’t want to get it dragging on forever. It is what it is. Whatever happened, happened, and that’s how it is in this business, you got to get over it.”

Rieder signed a one-year, $2 million contract with the team in free agency this past season. He has 11 assists in 60 games while playing just a little more than 12 minutes per night.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Holtby won’t go with Capitals to White House

ARLINGTON, Va. — Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby said Friday he will not join his teammates next week for a White House celebration of their Stanley Cup championship.

Holtby is the second player on the Capitals’ active roster to decline, joining fellow Canadian Brett Connolly.

”It’s one of those things that we have to think about, but with me, I’ve got to stay true to my values, and I’m going respectfully decline the offer,” Holtby said. ”For me, it’s just a personal thing. I believe in what I believe in, and in order to stick to those values, I think I have to do what I feel is right, but that doesn’t make a difference on everyone else’s decision.”

President Donald Trump has occasionally been at odds with pro athletes, from NFL players protesting racial injustices during the national anthem to NBA players including LeBron James and Stephen Curry.

The defending Stanley Cup champions will hold a private tour of the White House and meet Trump on Monday . The event will not include a public ceremony.

Russian captain Alex Ovechkin, Americans John Carlson and T.J. Oshie and coach Todd Reirden have said they will attend.